Down on the Farm in Maine
Interview with Mary and Bob Burr


The picturesque Blue Ribbon Farm in central Maine is home to several dozen Dorset sheep and their caretakers, Bob and Mary Burr, who have been raising these gentle-natured animals since the late 1970's.  Bob is a native Mainer, who on a college scholarship traveled to Australia, where he met Mary. "Maine is an ideal location and climate for raising sheep," writes Mary on "Our rich pastures offer lush feed from early spring through fall. The ewes graze throughout the summer months under the canopy of the 100-year old apple orchard which looks out across a panorama of valley and mountains. We emphasis a stress-free life for our girls, which makes for a happy and healthy flock."


RailRiders Adventure Clothing recently spoke with Mary after she sent us the most delightful email. "My husband and I have been long-time fans of your apparel. We've been wearing your outdoor clothing daily on our farm, whether it is in the forests cutting firewood, working the sheep, making hay, or kayaking and  canoeing Maine's rivers and lakes. I have a pair of your first outdoor Weatherpants that I wore down the St. John River on several week-long canoeing trips; hiked Mt. Washington in New Hampshire as well as numerous 4,000-footers in Maine; wore it to five-star restaurants and even into the Maine Governor's office.  Wherever I went, I was most comfortable in those pants.  I hate to say it, but I actually wore them out!  I think the 15 summers of hay making was just too much as I'd wash and wear them daily.  Don't worry, I have a replacement pair."




Q. What brought you from Australia to America, and did you grow up on a farm?


Mary Burr: It was the love of a man that brought me here.  I met my husband Bob of thirty-five years in Australia during a trip through the Australia Outback.  I was on vacation from my banking job. Our romance began at Uluru (Ayers Rock).  I've always found this to be a profound beginning as Uluru is the most sacred location in Australia for Aborigines, and I can attest to the strong magic in that region.  Bob is from Eastport, Maine; the most easterly city in America and as he has said, is the complete opposite ends of the earth from where I lived. 


Q: What was it like growing up in Australia?


MB: I had the best of three worlds; the city, the ocean and the country. I was born and raised in the city of Brisbane; one of seven children. We had a beach house north of the city where we spent every weekend and vacation surfing in the warm Pacific Ocean. Once we reached our teens, my parents bought 100 acres of land within commuting distance from the city where we could have horses and run a few head of cattle.  By country standards, we were considered 'city folk,' but those formative years in the country instilled a love for the outdoors and livestock, and an interest in farming as I watched the daily routines of the nearby farmers.



Q: Was it an easy adjustment moving to Maine?


MB: Out-of-staters feel they have a hard time with acceptance if they aren't third generation or more. Bob's family goes back into the mid-1800's in Maine and the 1600's in the colonies. I always felt well accepted because I was from so far away that the locals took me in under their wing.  I have never felt like an outsider; I love Maine and I also love the people. Bob and I came together with similar desires to work and play on the land; mine was to continue riding horses and Bob's was to continue the family tradition of growing a home garden, raising our own meat and a passion for forestry. Bob had acquired farming knowledge by working on a neighbor's farm all through high school and college.  That farm was also the recipient of Maine Tree Farm of the Year on several occasions which instilled in Bob a passion for forest cultivation. Fortunately for us, our first home was a 50-acre farm in central Maine where we could pursue our mutual interests of growing and raising our own food which we have been doing for the past 32 years.  We don't own the original farm, but we live in the same vicinity on larger acreage (300 acres).


Q: Describe an average day on your farm.


MB: Our mornings always begin with livestock chores, regardless of the weather or time of year.  The sheep are fed and watered and the laying hens are given the previous evening's fruit and vegetable table scraps--peeled potatoes, carrots, apples--after checking their self feeders and waterers. In the spring, we are busy with tending to the sheep needs of hoof trimming, shearing, parasite control and breeding.  Our ewes give birth-- called lambing-- in the fall as opposed to the spring as most sheep do.  We have Dorset sheep which have a natural ability to breed out-of-season.  We take advantage of this trait for marketing and for true breed characteristics. Bob also keeps several hives of bees and there are maintenance issues with bees as well.  They need supplemental feedings after the long winter; the hives have to be cleaned and inspected. The barns are also cleaned out. The fences require maintenance in the spring.  We use five strands of high tensile electric fence for all our pasture boundaries which help with predator control. They are mainly coyotes, though we have never lost a sheep to them. Because the snow can break poles and sag the wire, the breaks get repaired and wires  have to be tightened, and often tension poles need replacing.  We use rotational pastures for our sheep so temporary fencing is a weekly or more often practice.  The sheep are grazed on lush pasture throughout the summer and that requires moving them every few days.



The vegetable garden is planted in stages during the spring depending on the warmth of the soil.  We plant our cool weather crops-- lettuce mixes, peas, green onions, spinach, carrots-- early and continue planting as the soil allows.  In May, we turn to getting the haying equipment ready for the season.  Hay is our largest commodity produced from the farm.  We grow 100 acres producing hay silage, dry square bales and round large bales.  We cut all our fields twice -- a first crop and a second crop.  The second crop is the best where there is a higher protein content to the grass.  It's a challenge to get the first crop off in a timely manner to allow enough time for a good second crop.  Here in Maine, we don't lack for water and that is often the problem; getting the fields dry enough to get onto the fields early


With hay making our main priority during the summer, any spare moments get taken up with weeding the vegetable gardens and managing the bee hives.  We extract honey during the middle of the summer and that allows the bees time to fill their chambers with honey for themselves.


Come late fall and winter, we are into the woods.  We are a certified tree farm and we utilize best management practices  in our woods and harvest sustainably.  We sell a variety of forest products: firewood, saw logs, pulp wood and occasionally custom sawn lumber.  We manage our woodlots for both softwood and hardwood.  Our softwoods are primarily eastern white pine, white spruce and balsam fir.  Our hardwoods are ash, oak, maple, white and yellow birch. There aren't too many days we aren't able to work in the woods.  We have a recreation cabin in the forest with a small stove where we warm up at lunch time and end the day; it's a cozy place to discuss our day's efforts.


Q. What are the differences between a sheep farm like yours and those in Australia and New Zealand?


MB: Size! Our flock at present is down to twenty-five ewes; we usually run around forty-five breeders.  The flock is back in the growing stage.  We have National Champion lineage and the young ewes on the farm are all from our National Champion Ram. The farm is always working on bettering the genetic pool.  We sold half the flock last summer to a number of small lamb growers; some in Massachusetts, Virginia, New Hampshire and Maine.  Being a breeder of high-end replacement stock, our sheep sell for a higher dollar than commercial sheep.  A purebred flock requires diligence with record keeping, investment in genetics and advertising.  In Australia, the flocks of sheep are enormous, ranging  from several hundred to many thousands.  In Western Australia where they grow wheat by the thousands of acres, they run several flocks of sheep on the wheat stubble.  Sheep are a commodity over there and are traded as such. The markets are also different.  Australia is the largest grower of fine wool in the world and one of the largest exporters of lamb (meat) along with New Zealand: Australia has a billion-dollar sheep industry compared to Maine's sustainable family farms. In Maine, there are nearly 10,000 sheep  living on just over 500 farms.


Q. What is your prized National Champion Ram like?


MB:."Big Deal" is a big boy on any sheep scale.  At the height of his show career he weighed 365 pounds. You definitely want to have good control of a ram at that size and weight.  He's actually a pretty nice guy, and feels most content when he's with his girls.  What guy wouldn't want his own harem!



Q: Is there a typical personality for sheep?


MB: They each have an individual personality that is noticeable when spending time with them.  Sheep are really nice to be around because they have a calming quality. They are very sociable and curious. If we weren't around them as much as we are, they'd probably be mad-hatters as they have a very strong herding instinct (protection from predators), but since they trust Bob and me, they vie for our attention.  They almost get comatose standing there being patted.  Any animal that is handled calmly and frequently, enjoys human contact. We find them very relaxing to be around.  It gives us a chance twice a day to survey their condition and health and also a moment to enjoy the surroundings of their environment.  They live in idyllic surroundings-- an old apple orchard surrounded by stone walls with a view of the mountains. Of course, most of them have names which suit their personalities. For example, 'Queen' is the leader of the flock and the oldest. She is a dear old girl and we just love her.  Queen will be retired after her next lambing.  She has produced well for us and has earned her retirement. 'Moneypenny' produced an ewe lamb that sold for $3,750. 'Snow' was very white at birth.


Q: Describe the output of a sheep - in terms of lambs and wool production - and what happens to them when they get old?


MB: A sheep generally has a production lifespan of 10 to 12 years, if they are well cared for.  If it is a wool breed, they are sheared once or twice a year depending again on their breed.  Some sheep produce such a long fiber they have to be shorn twice a year. A wool breed will yield 8 to 12 pounds of useable fleece annually,  and will lamb once a year. Again depending on the breed, ewes will lamb in the spring and produce an annual crop of lambs of either singles, twins or multiple births. Their lambs will be used for replacements primarily for wool; meat is a secondary focus.  The main focus of wool breeds is the quality of their fleece in comparison to the meat breeds, The meat breeds sacrifice the fleece (5 to 8 pounds) to produce a choice grade of meat lamb.  In each case, an ewe will produce lambs for that 10 to 12 years of production, and in most cases, she will be culled from the herd when she is no longer productive.  On our farm, an ewe that produces well for us, meaning, she produces mostly twins, is a good mother and milks well, will be retired to the pasture for the rest of her life.  If the ewe doesn't have a good mothering ability, constantly produces single lambs or doesn't meet the breed standard of excellence that we strive for, she will be shipped for meat. I do want to emphasize, however, that farming links the reality of meat on the table to the animal in the field.  Farmers take responsibility for what we eat.  From our point of view, we provide our ewes and their offspring with the best lives they could have up until slaughter. We personally truck the sheep to the slaughter house  so there is minimum stress on the animal.  It's one of the harder aspects of farming, but a necessary one.



Q: Who helps you around the farm? And over the years?


MB:  Bob was the President and CEO of Pride Manufacturing, the largest producer of golf tees in the world; they are also the manufacturer of ‘Softspikes' – golf shoe cleats. He worked on the farm weekends and vacations and during the hay harvest season, if he wasn't overseas or traveling for the company, he'd work evenings after his daytime job.  With Bob working a full-time career  I ran the farm.  That has been my job for the past  30 years which I think is the best job in the world.  During the busy summer months, we employed one or two of our town's youth.  (Mercer is a rural town consisting of approximately 600 people in central Maine and considered part of the foothills to Maine's ski mountains. ) We have employed several generations of young men over the years and they have been such a pleasure to work with.  Their energy and vitality has kept us youthful, at least in spirit. We have kept in touch with many of them. Bob retired early at age 56 to still be physically strong enough to enjoy his passion of farming and forestry.  We're living our dream!




Q: What do you like best about owning your own farm?


MB:  We both love working outdoors and living sustainably.  We get to see what is happening in nature daily.  We see the winter dissolve into spring and the leaves unfurl revealing a rich lime green that matures into a deeper shade of green.  We can literally see the grass grow on a daily basis  and all the wildflowers that blossom according to their season.  Every day is just brilliant. Equally satisfying is the ability to grow our own food.  It is very rewarding at the end of the day to know that what we have produced is for ourselves and to share with others. We always review the day in the evening over a glass of wine and a good meal. We also set goals annually as well as a five-year plan.  We create a list every week according to the season for farm or forest activities that need completion.  It gives us a sense of satisfaction to see items checked off as completed. We are both quite orderly and perhaps fussy about how things are done, so working for ourselves gives us the freedom to use our own skills to their best advantage.


Q: What do you see as the future of the family-owned farm in America?


MB: We both feel optimistic about the family-owned farm.  It's a good time to be a farmer at long last.  With more people paying attention to where their food is grown and how it is grown, there is a strong sense of 'buying local' from farmers in one's community. It seems that we are hearing more alerts on contaminated foods grown or raised overseas and sometimes here in the U.S. from the large agribusiness enterprises;   the locally raised farm products look more appealing every day. The Maine Department of Agriculture has been encouraging towns to promote their local farming industry and it is really making an impact.  Ten years ago there were just a smattering of local markets, but now we're beginning to see farmers markets all over Maine. We can't meet the local demand for our custom lamb here on our farm. I'm on the board for the Maine Sheep Breeders Association so I am seeing how our members are meeting their market demands for both meat and fiber.  Besides the meat demand, the fiber opportunities are there as well.  There are more people getting back to the tradition of knitting, spinning, weaving and felting.  They are creating a niche market. Our sheep association collaborates annually with the Maine Beef Association and the Maine Boer Goat Association to host a multi species breeder and market show and sale. It is called the Northeast Livestock Expo ( We had more buyers this year wanting market lambs than last year and it was the same for each of the other species. Finally, we are both active members of SWOAM (Small Woodlot Owners of Maine), and Bob is on the board of directors for the Forest Society of Maine. We are both active in conservation groups and volunteer for several societies pertaining to our interests.




Q: Any new changes in store for your farm?


MB:  Here on Blue Ribbon Farm, we have just erected a 32' x 48' greenhouse which will allow us to grow certain crops year-round, and yes, even in winter!  We've been following the progress of one local enterprise which has been marketing its crops--   mixed lettuces, spinach and arugula.--- to the local health food stores, restaurants and farmers markets in each month except January.  There isn't enough daylight in January for the crops to grow, but they don't die; they just stays dormant until February.  We plan on growing herbs for fresh year-round availability as well as extending the growing season for our own vegetable needs. We're quite excited about it.   In addition to the greenhouse, we are building a new barn on the footprint of an old one that was beyond restoration.  Part of the barn will house our future retail farm store. We plan on selling our lambs by the cut instead of the side or whole carcass; free-range chickens; homespun yarn and raw wool; wool products like blankets, pillows and comforters; from the greenhouse, there will be herbs, lettuce mixes, green beans, carrots, onions, leeks and cabbage; honey and honeycomb; wooden birdhouses, apple boxes and walking sticks made from our own timber; cedar fence posts; gift cards, and my own paintings.


Q: How challenging is it to own and operate a farm in Maine?


MB: A saying here in Maine is that "if you survive the winter, you deserve the summer." The resurgence in farming in Maine is in the small diversified farms, and they are labor intensive because they can't utilize large machinery.  Like anywhere, farming is physically hard work and the cold weather can make it more difficult.  Frozen water pipes, frost four feet into the ground and snow and ice to contend with can often be demanding. Every state has its weather-related issues and here in Maine it is the cold winters and a relatively short-growing season. Surprisingly, Maine gets a lot of sunshine, but it's cold sunshine  We also have lots of wonderful water; fresh, clean, pure water that many areas of the world are fighting over. Finding a product that suits the Maine climate is important.  Sheep have always seemed a natural fit; they prefer the cold over the heat.   Potatoes and blueberries have always been a Maine staple. Real estate values have increased here as elsewhere and for a young couple getting started in farming it's very difficult.  There are a couple of organizations such as the Maine Farmland Trust that are trying to link aging farmers with new generation farms.  There is also an organization called Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners (MOFGA) which coordinates apprentice farmers with teaching farms.  Gaining the experience is one of the harder aspects of farming.  Most of us over the years have had good tutors and I hope we're passing this knowledge on to the next generation. But not to gloss over it, farming is hard work, but if you love it as we do, it's not really work; it's our life and lifestyle.


Q: Any final words about RailRiders clothing?


MB: This past spring, we spent seven weeks visiting family and friends in my country of birth, Australia.  Knowing we would be doing plenty of hiking in rough terrain at Kalbarri National Park in Western Australia, we took RailRiders shorts, slacks and sunscreen shirts as they pack easily and look good for all occasions.  My sister admired my sun-protection Eco-Mesh shirt with the ventilated sides and back, so I left it with her as a present. My husband wears a RailRiders shirt every day of the year, no matter the season. He likes the way they wick away perspiration and they never snag.  They keep the heat in during the winter and are cool in the summer.